Tag Archives: gym

1910s – 1920 Wool Gym Suit

I started adding gym suits to my collection purely by accident.  Ten years or so ago I was trading some things with my favorite vintage shop when the owner pulled out a 1940s gym suit and insisted that I take it. I was a bit reluctant as I was trying to limit the focus of my acquiring.  I now realize she knew me better than I knew myself.

Since then I’ve actively searched for gym suits, and now have sixteen in my collection dating from circa 1870 through the 1950s.  Considering how women claim to have detested their gym suits, it is surprising how many survive. I’m pretty sure my 1970s version was destroyed decades ago!

I found my latest gym suit at the Liberty Antiques Festival back in April. I almost missed it, as it was folded in a stack of old linens. But something about the black serge caught my eye as I passed by.  The lesson is, of course, to always look through unpromising stacks of linens.

I estimate this one to date from 1915 through 1920.  The photo above is from an Aldrich & Aldrich catalog showing a 1920 gym suit from their inventory.  Mine is a different company, E.R. Moore, but the styling is very similar, with the loose belt that contains the wide pleats that fall from a yoke at the shoulders.

E.R. Moore was founded in 1907, and made not only gym suits, but also academic gowns for graduations and other ceremonies. As far as I can tell, the gym suit production ended several decades ago, but gowns continued to be made at least until 2005. The year before there was a big kerfuffle at Harvard when it rained at graduation and the dye from the gowns ruined graduates’ clothing. The factory building is now loft apartments.


One thing I especially love about this suit is that I know the name of the original owner.  Not only is Virginia Hooper’s name sewn into the suit, but a note was attached as well.

I have not been able to identify Ms. Hooper, but the suit came from a consolidation estate company in Indian Trail, NC, which is in the Charlotte area. Along with the gym suit and linens, several boxes of high quality fabrics came from the estate. (And yes, I bought some of them as well.)


After looking at the Aldrich catalog, I’m thinking I should have photographed the belt buttoning at the back.

Without the belt you can see how roomy this gym suit is.  No need for a corset here.

In my quest for more information about this particular suit, I turned to When the Girls Came Out to Play, by Patricia Campbell Warner, and I was rewarded with some nice details about this style of gym suit.  It was designed around 1910 by Florence Bolton at Stanford University, and was based on the English gym slip, but with bloomers at the bottom. It was designed to be worn with a cotton blouse beneath. Practical though it was, this design proved to be unpopular as it was too far from mainstream fashion. Warner points out, however, that before long, most women’s fashions had a similar silhouette. Once again we see the influence of sports attire.


Filed under Collecting, Proper Clothing, Vintage Clothing, Winter Sports

Brownie Gymsuit, 1930s – 40s

I recently added another gymsuit to my little collection of them.  My best guess is that this one is from the late 1930s, or maybe into the early years of the 40s.  In fact I have a 1940 catalog from maker Aldrich & Aldrich that shows a suit that has a lot of the same features.

Gymsuits are not fashion items, but to some extent they did follow fashion, or at least sports clothes fashion.   In the case of my gymsuit, the pleated sleeves were very popular in the mid 1930s.   Maybe some gymsuit maker noted the fashion and realized that this sleeve was a good one for use in a garment that needed to let the wearer move.

Other features that increased mobility were the pleated skirt and the presence of an inverted pleat in the back.

To make it easier to get dressed in the small amount of time that a school schedule allowed, there were snaps instead of buttons, and a metal belt clasp that did not require buckling.

I’m always amazed at how well vintage gymsuits are constructed.  The fabric is usually a cotton; either a broadcloth, poplin or a lightweight duck.   They were made to last through four years of physical education.

There were quite a few gymsuit makers, but Brownie is a new one to me.  It is interesting that the label was based in St. Louis, home to the fashion industry for the teen set.

A brownie is a sort of elf-like creature, similar to Dobby in the Harry Potter series, but cuter.  They were popularized in the late 19th century by illustrator and writer, Palmer Cox.   The Brownie branch of the Girl Scouts was named for them.


Filed under Proper Clothing, Sportswear

Gym Class, 1940s

I got this gym suit from my favorite vintage clothing store some time ago.  It’s very similar to the kind my mother wore in the late 1940s.  Actually, it’s a dress, with little matching bloomer pants beneath.  There is a photo in When the Girls Came Out to Play taken in 1950, and the girls are wearing a similar dress and bloomer get-up.

What’s really interesting is that the girls are demonstrating some gymnastic moves, and the ones who are doing headstands have the skirt of the dress tucked into the legs of the bloomers.  According to Patricia Warner, the girls considered the bloomers to be underwear, and did not like them to show!  I remember my mother telling me a similar story, about how tucking the skirt into the bloomers was just a part of getting ready for gym class.

Notice the embroidered initials. Many schools required the owner to embroider her name or initials on the gym suit.  Ms.  Warner points out that this helped the teacher with identification and remembering names.  But I can think of another reason the initials were required – to keep the girls from borrowing the suits from each other.

When I was in school in the 1960s and 1970s, there were strict rules about taking the suit home to be washed.  The problem was that who wanted to take the nasty old thing and carry it to one’s locker, and then to carry it home?  So whenever word got around that gym suits were to be inspected, there was a rash of suit borrowing from more fastidious classmates.  Thanks goodness our teachers hadn’t thought of that embroidery idea!


Filed under Sportswear, Vintage Clothing

Gym Class ~ Mars Hill College ~ Early 1920s

And to think that I thought my 1960s gym suit was tacky!

This photo was taken at Mars Hill College, which is just north of Asheville, NC, around 1922. The bloomers don’t do much for these young ladies, but I think the middy tops are quite cute! Notice that some of them are wearing stockings and I love the shoes.

I can imagine that they hated this outfit. Maybe some of them saw the bloomers as easy to wear and comfortable, but there’s just something about the idea of a gymsuit that doesn’t quite sit well with the forced-to-wear-it wearer.

When I started junior high in the late 1960s, our gymsuits were white and one piece. Looking back, I can see that they were really quite flattering, or would have been if they had been a nice color. But they were the bane of our existance, and a subject of constant concern. Probably the biggest complaint was that the boys were not required to wear a uniform, and so we were always playing the fairness card. But the truth of the matter was that we thought they were ugly and that they made us look ugly. The teacher always pointed out that PE classes were separate from the boys anyway so what did it matter?

By the time I was a senior in high school in 1973, our dress code had faced a court challenge and had been abolished, but the gymsuits were still required for girls. I can remember how we all just decided to stop wearing them. I guess the school system decided it was not a battle worth fighting, because nothing was ever said. That left us shaking our heads and kicking ourselves, wishing we had tried this earlier!

During this period of gymsuitedness, I complained to my mother who replied with something to the effect that I should have seen the gymsuit SHE was forced to wear in the 1940s. Now that was ugly! So I was surprised to see pictures of her 1949 class in their cute little green gym dresses with bloomer panties beneath. Now THAT was a gymsuit I could wear!

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Filed under North Carolina, Sportswear, Vintage Photographs